20 July 2007 – 2 August 2007
After landing in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, we had just enough time for Lydia to discover that American Airlines had lost her luggage before we flew off to the Galapagos Islands early the next morning. We lived aboard the Free Enterprise for a week, a small boat that would sail to a new island twice a day.
Each island housed distinct wildlife frolicking upon a spectrum of beaches that ranged from white to red to black. We watched Galapagos tortoises slumber in the mud at Santa Cruz, and walked though a lava tunnel in St James Bay.
Picked our way through dozens of Galapagos sea lions at Rabida, the females suckling their babies on the shore.
In Santiago, the shore was littered with marine iguanas sunning themselves on the black larval rocks, constantly sneezing out the excess salt from their ocean adventures. We were able to walk across land that had seen molten lava only 120 years ago – ripples of black metallic rock were spread over the land, contrasting with the golden sands and the green algae that feeds the marine iguanas and the sally lightfoot crabs. Still, even in the middle of the island – barren and black – life finds a place. The larval rocks rust as they crack, and tiny shrubs and cacti find a foothold, eeking out an existence from the various minerals and the one centimeter of annual rainfall.
As we woke on our last morning on the Free Enterprise, the sky was full of blue-footed boobies diving for fish, and frigate birds trying to steal their catch. Frigate birds are the pirates of the air, as they lack the oil gland to make their feathers waterproof, and must either catch fish near the surface, or steal from other birds. North Seymour is a nesting island with no predators, and thus all the birds would allow us to walk right up to them. The male frigate birds were attempting to woo the females by filling their crimson neck pouches full of air, like a giant balloon about to burst. The male blue-footed boobies present their females with twigs as part of their mating ritual, although this species no longer build nests.
We flew back to the mainland of Ecuador, landing in the port city of Guayaquil, home to three million people and Lydia’s lost luggage. It was the eve of Viva Guayaquil and everyone was out to celebrate. Guayaquil’s waterfront is vibrant and modern, featuring a long wooden boulevard, guarded by bronze statues of past presidentes, children’s playgrounds, and a Japanese garden. At the end of the boulevard we reached a weaving staircase leading up through bustling restaurants, each stair bearing a stone plaque numbered 1 through 444. At the top we were greeting to a stunning view of the city at night – skyscrapers, long wide streets, and the city streching out in every direction, the only darkness the river that wound through the metropolis.
The next day, the seven Intrepid travellers, our guide, and our driver hopped into our small bus for a long drive through the Andes. We climbed to 3,100 m to see the ruins of Ingapirca, a Incan sun temple built upon a structure constructed by the indigenous Canari people. It was shaped like a puma, with the dead buried at the feet of the cat, the food in the stomach, the soldiers housed in the head, and the tower at the tip of the nose. Within this complex were huge rock moon calendars – certain reflections of the moon and stars in 28 large holes filled with water would reveal the date. In amongst the walls of the ruins, serene alpacas grazed on the grass and yellow wildflowers.
Then we were off down the mountains to the city of Cuenco, World Heritage listed for its classic colonial town center. As we walked through the streets that night, we looked up into the sky to see dozens of bright lights, souring and winding. As we moved closer, we saw that they were tiny hot air balloons of coloured paper lit with straw torches, lit to celebrate the festival of St Anne. A large crowd was gathered, a salsa band played, and the excitement of avoiding burning hot air balloons and misdirected fireworks kept the adrenaline flowing.
On our way to Riobamba we visited the great volcano of Volcan Chimborazo, which rises to 6,267 m above sea level. As the earth bulges at the equator, its summit is the highest place on earth – 6,384.4 km from the center of the planet, compared to the summit of Everest at only only 6,381.7 km. The bus slowly wound its way up the dirt track to base-camp at 4,800 m above sea level, and we were able to stand at 6,383.2 km from the center of the earth – higher than Everest. The group resolved to climb the next 200m to reach 5,000 m above sea level. Lydia soon succumbed to altitude sickness, and combined with the sight of the tombstones placed in memory of all those lost up on the mountain, she decided to return to the fireplace at base-camp. Adrian and the others persevered up to 5,000 m, where an old man lived in a small hut, selling “5,000 m” stickers to tourists for $1.
In Banos, we booked a mountain biking and white-water rafting trip. Lydia was very nervous about such an expedition, but she was assured that we would have “a short and easy bike ride, all flat and downhill” followed by “very easy and smooth rafting, perfect for families and beginners”. The next day we were to experience a ride down the Amazon that was anything but perfect.
The adventure began with a two-hour ride up steep roads, with a sharp cliff on our right and honking trucks on our left. We were starting to doubt the accuracy of yesterday’s predictions. We were then fitted with wetsuits, life-jackets and helmets, and taught to how to raft in white water. We were told not to worry if we became trapped under a flipped boat, because we can breathe in the air pockets. This knowledge may have saved Lydia’s life. While Adrian snapped photos with a disposable camera, Lydia anxiously scoured the river for the next set of rapids.
About halfway down the river, disaster struck. We could not paddle fast enough to prevent the raft from hitting a cliff wall, and the boat flipped. Suddenly Lydia was submerged, and all she could see was bubbles in murky water. The raft was pressing against her head and she could not reach the surface. She knew that if she could not find air for her next breath, she would drown. She floundered around and managed to find one of the air pockets of the upturned raft. After taking lungfuls of delicious air, she ducked underneath the boat to hold onto the outside. However, Lydia needed to let go of the raft to allow our guide to flip it over, and in the shambles she was swept down the river. Five of the seven oars were drifting down the river, so the raft was not coming to pick her up anytime soon. Adrian saw Lydia’s predicament, climbed out of the raft, and swam down the rushing river to help her. Between us we collected the lost oars, and floated down the river hand-in-hand, feet first to brace us from any impact. We endured two sets of rapids to be greeted by some very hungry-looking vultures, and finally to our raft that had caught up with us. They pulled us aboard, and we made it down the rest of the river with no further disasters. We were all so grateful that everyone was okay, and Lydia vowed never ever to go white water rafting again. As Lydia had lost her shoes to the Amazon, Adrian gave her a shoulder ride across town, even under the Bridge of Love in the main square.
We leave Banos early for the Amazon basin, and five hours later arrive at the edge of a river to see half a dozen brightly coloured long and shallow canoes. We must ride in these rickety contraptions to reach the hotel, and Lydia spends fifteen minutes of terror, reliving the events of the day before, until we arrive unscathed at our destination.
While we were expecting a rustic Amazon jungle lodge, we were instead delivered to a resort that resembled Club Med amongst jungle that had been farmland only 22 years ago. Still, after the recent events, sitting by a pool with a Pina Colada was a very welcome experience. Over the next few days we visited a butterfly farm, and Adrian had to suggest to Lydia that perhaps the DEET-based mosquito spray that she was about to use might not be the kindest gift for the butterflies that she was about to visit. We also saw an animal rescue center filled with dozens of cheeky squirrel monkeys and other animals, many being prepared for release into the wild. Another short and scary canoe ride brought us to a path through the young jungle, and we were down the traditional uses of the plants – thatching, cooking, and medicine. We were even able to spot two tiny frogs in the undergrowth – one brown and one blue – before the disappeared with a single flick of their hind legs. Lydia made peace with the Amazon during a gentle tube ride down the river, watching the butterflies and birds flutter through the trees.
We visited the small village near the resort, and sat in a traditional thatched house on stilts, and drank some chichu from a communal bowl. The drink was made from banana and sweet potato, grated on the bark of a thorn tree. Before long it was time to leave the Amazon basin and make our way back to Quito, where our adventures had begun two weeks before.
We spent a day seeing the churches, markets, and squares of the capital of Ecuador, before boarding our plane back to Seattle and our new life as husband and wife.